A Humble Birth

It was the humble birth of a son that led to the writing of one of our most beloved Christmas carols. There is some disagreement on the exact details, but it seems to have come about like this. The place where the events took place is a tiny village called Oberndorf in a region of the Austrian Alps known as the Tyrol.

The year was 1818, and it was the day before Christmas. Plans were well underway for a musical program that would take place the next evening. Joseph Mohr, the pastor of the village church, and his organist Franz Gruber, were both musicians, and they hoped the service they had planned would be a blessing to all.

But as often happens in pastoral ministry, work on the program was interrupted. Word came that a poor wood-chopper's wife had just given birth to a child. They lived quite a distance from town, and Pastor Mohr went everywhere on foot. He immediately set his other tasks aside and made his way through the snow to their cottage, where he had prayer, asking God's blessing on their newborn son. Having been invited to a Christmas Eve party at the home of a wealthy parishioner, Mohr then set off from the couple's cottage up a nearby mountain to the palatial home.

It was late when he finally trudged through the snow back to Oberndorf. The night was clear and cold, and the stars sparkled brilliantly overhead. He thought about the humble birth of the wood-cutter's son, and of course it reminded him of the coming of Christ.

He was overwhelmed by the scene before him and quickened his pace homeward, where he turned a sudden inspiration into the words of a song, finishing it at four in the morning. On Christmas Day he took the lines of verse to his friend Franz Gruber, who supplied a tune. The two of them sang it to the villagers for the first time that evening, assisted by a choir.

It is not surprising that the son of a poor labourer should be born in a modest cabin outside an obscure little town. What is astonishing is that the Son of God should choose to come to earth that way. The wise men came to Herod in Jerusalem, expecting "the King of the Jews" would be found there (Matt. 2:1-2). But instead He was born in Bethlehem. His nursery was a stable, and His cradle a manger of hay.

Why did it happen that way? The Bible tells us: "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich" (II Cor. 8:9). He readily served the poorest and the weakest. No one is too lowly to receive His love."He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:8). The Lord Jesus willingly left heaven's glory in order to provide salvation for you and me (Jn. 3:16).

Some accounts of our hymn's origin speak of the breakdown of the church organ, but that did not likely happen until November of 1819–nearly two years afterward. It was, however, the organ repairman Fritz Mauracher, who came from a village over the mountains, heard the song, and shared it with the outside world.

In his town lived the Strasser family, who manufactured fine leather gloves. They had trained their four children to sing in front of their booth at fairs and festivals, in order to drum up sales. It was the Strasser Sisters Quartet that soon spread the lovely song to town after town. It did not even have a name, but was known simply as a "Tiroler Volkslied" (a Tyrolean Folk Song). It was first published in a German hymnal under the heading, "A Hymn of Unknown Origin." Now we know it in English as "Silent Night."